Delivering water, or carrying it?

By From page A6 | February 06, 2013

By Frank Loge and Matt Williams

In December 2011, the Davis City Council called on us to serve on the Water Advisory Committee to give the best advice we could on what to do about the water issues facing Davis. We stepped up. One of us, Frank Loge, is a civil engineer specializing in water. The other, Matt Williams, spent a career setting and dealing with rates for health care, information technology and water.

We, along with the other 13 members of the committee, quickly realized that any solution to the city’s water woes would be expensive, and this got us looking into how we could wisely save Davisites as much money as possible, and how to spread the financial pain of any new water infrastructure costs as fairly as we could. From Day One of our work on the proposed rate structure, Proposition 218 was front and center in our minds. Indeed, were it not for Prop. 218, there would have been no reason to propose a new rate structure at all.

We spent a lot of late nights crafting the new water rates until we had something we thought met everybody’s needs and complied fully with the state’s often conflicting constitutional mandates. When we were done, we submitted our work to Kelly Salt, a lawyer who is one of the state’s leading experts on Prop. 218 compliance. Her legal opinion was that it passed muster, and Davis City Attorney Harriet Steiner agreed. These lawyers work for the people of Davis, are highly qualified and have no ulterior motives or hidden agendas.

We were stunned, then, to read Bob Dunning’s column of Jan. 27, which claimed our proposed new rate structure violated Prop. 218. The opinion column claimed that anonymous “opponents” were poised to sue the city over the proposed rate plan’s Prop. 218 compliance. We didn’t have much time to wonder who these opponents were, because Bob’s next column revealed that the lawsuit had been filed.

When we got ahold of it, we saw that the suit had been filed by longtime zero-growth advocate Michael Harrington. We can’t comment on most of the lawsuit’s claims, but there is a claim in there, the “third cause of action,” that mentions our names and says the rate plan that bears our names violates Prop. 218. So once again, we feel obliged to step up.

The lawsuit claims the proposed rate structure is unconstitutional because it (quoting from Prop. 218) “impose(s) a fee or charge incidental to property ownership which exceeds the proportional cost of the services attributable to the parcel.” The lawsuit makes no effort to substantiate this charge beyond praising “local notable columnist” Bob Dunning and proffering his Jan. 27 column as an exhibit.

Saying rates are not proportional, though, does not make it so. What would a proportional system look like? The suit offers no specifics beyond Dunning’s column, which argues that every gallon of water should cost the same to deliver to every ratepayer every day of a given year.

Reality, however, does not conform to this analysis: Davis has very high peak summer water use, and the water system must be built to cover that peak use. It costs more to build a system that can deliver a July gallon than one that delivers only December gallons. The proposed rate structure fairly and proportionally assigns the costs of that high peak water use to high peak water users. Every other rate structure we examined would unfairly shift these costs onto thrifty water users.

If anyone can offer a fairer, more proportional rate structure, the people of Davis deserve to see it. In the meantime, know this: If anyone offers you a “proportional” water system built around Dunning’s vision of annual average use, stock up on water barrels, because your tap will be dry half the year.

We’re also impressed by the timing of this. On Jan. 27, Dunning published the scoop that anonymous “opponents” would sue the city over the new rate plan; four days later, the prophesied lawsuit appeared, singling him out for praise and citing his opinions as evidence. We’re confident that all the legal and journalistic niceties and plausible deniabilities have been attended to, but it’s obvious to us at least that Dunning is working very closely with Harrington on this.

This might not seem a big deal — readers know after all that Bob is an opinion columnist, not a reporter — but his actions take place in a larger political context. If the rest of this lawsuit is as flimsy as the part that attacks our work, it seems likely that the whole point of it is to scandalize Measure I before the election and to gin up Prop. 218 challenges to the proposed rates.

The wheels of justice turn slowly in California, and there is no way this lawsuit will be resolved before either the Measure I election or the Prop. 218 notice period closes, so its claims will hang out there, conjured bogeymen that opponents can wave at to stoke fear.

We worked hard to put forward the fairest, most proportional rate structure we could, and we think we’ve done right by Davis. It pains us to see our work smeared in sleazy political gamesmanship. It’s beneath The Enterprise’s dignity and mission to allow itself to be used this way.

— Frank Loge and Matt Williams are members of the Davis Water Advisory Committee.

Special to The Enterprise

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